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Another Look at the Interaction of American GI's and German Soldiers During W W II

Updated on March 25, 2012
phdast7 profile image

Theresa Ast earned a PhD (Emory) in European History and has taught history for 20 years. "Confronting the Holocaust" available at AMAZON..

American Soldiers in World War II


American GI's Engage German Soldiers on German Soil

Undeniably most GIs were horrified and morally outraged by their experience in the concentration camps, however, moral outrage did not always lead to retaliation and abuse of German soldiers. Some GIs stressed the importance of the Geneva Convention, the rules for treatment of captured or surrendered enemy soldiers, and indicate that the tenets of the Geneva Convention were upheld.[i]

Lieutenant Smith noted that, "the standing order for any prisoner after he is disarmed--the Geneva Convention--he is protected--[it is] a standing order not to allow violence against anyone." According to Lt. Colonel Moncrief "there were no orders issued to treat the German guards any different than any other German soldier."

Sergeant Adzick had standing orders to protect German POWs as they were needed for interrogation purposes to improve local American intelligence efforts. Infantryman Mills had no knowledge of American GIs shooting unarmed German soldiers and observed that such an action, would be deemed an atrocity. Alexander Breuer was ordered by his Commanding Officer to shoot German soldiers attempting to surrender, but refused his CO's command as it conflicted with the Geneva Convention.[ii]

Some GIs recall an occasional incident where German soldiers attempting to surrender were fired upon, but claim that for the most part captured enemy soldiers were treated well.[iii] When asked how American soldiers handled German prisoners, Howard Lewis replied that "in general [they were treated] very well. But with one angry guard and one prisoner in the middle of the forest our treatment sometimes got out of hand." Mr. Lewis remains convinced that this was a rare occurrence.[iv]

Other servicemen noted that captured German military were much more likely to be shot near or just behind front lines. Captives who made it to rear areas were usually protected and treated decently. PFC Reagler testified that "he did not doubt that some prisoners were shot by front line troops," but his experience was that prisoners who made it back to a POW cage or holding area had little to fear.[v]

The rage and revulsion occasioned by the scenes inside the concentration camps prompted a substantial number of American soldiers to temporarily disregard the Geneva Convention regulations concerning surrendered enemy personnel. Two GIs specifically recall a verbal order from a superior to "take no prisoners."[vi]

George Pisik who participated in the liberation of Dachau described how his superior officer made his wishes known to the troops. The Commanding Officer would select Pisik and another GI and assign them the task of transporting German prisoners back to holding cages or POW enclosures, which happened to be ten miles or more to the rear.

They would then be carefully instructed to "take your firearms with you and be back here in twenty minutes." As this feat was physically impossible, Pisik and the other GIs understood their superior's meaning. They were expected to, and in fact usually did, fall back briefly, shoot the prisoners, then, quickly catch up with the main body of troops which had continued moving forward.[vii]

Although receiving a specific command to take no prisoners from one's CO seemed to have been fairly uncommon, what was common, according to the testimony of numerous GIs, was a low-key passing of the word, from soldier to soldier, to take no prisoners.

American GIs tacitly agreed to shoot enemy soldiers whom they held responsible for the camps and atrocities without specific orders from their superiors.[viii] Lieutenant Gibson who entered Ohrdruf concentration camp described the situation he encountered. "During the following two weeks it was extremely difficult to acquire prisoners since our men killed most of the Krauts that made an attempt to surrender. We required prisoners to learn intelligence so that our future operations would be more successful [and have] fewer casualties.

I had one hell of a time convincing my men of this."[ix] Major King, who spent time at Mauthausen concentration camp, described the prevailing atmosphere among his men. "Troops do run in moods. And it would be very dangerous to be a German soldier in that area in that camp...your life expectancy would be quite low...the troops were in no mood for taking prisoners or anything of that sort."[x]

What is striking about the testimony of some GIs is their careful attribution of American atrocities to "other" platoons and "other" companies, followed by the assertion that the men in their own platoons and companies did not commit such acts. Having made such comments in a slightly conspiratorial manner, a few GIs mentioned their apprehension that war reputations be protected and honored and after-the-fact military investigations not be initiated

Off the record, one service man informed me that his fellow veterans were genuinely fearful of an investigation, even as late as the 1980s and 1990s. This fear was based in measure upon the fact that a formal Inspector General Investigation was launched in May 1945, and there was an initial recommendation that a number of soldiers be brought up on charges before a court martial.

There is one incident where American troops shot unarmed German soldiers that is extensively and officially documented; it took place in Dachau concentration camp on the day it was liberated. This incident was rarely spoken of or written about publicly for many years, although it is now apparent that military personnel at several levels in the army chain of command had knowledge of the incident.

In 1986 Colonel Howard Beuchner published a book detailing, in a rather emotional and commemorative tone, the events which transpired in the Dachau compound on April 29th.[xi] However, Beuchner's book alone was not sufficient to verify the alleged Dachau shooting.

To Be Continued

[i]. Captain Carlisle Woelfer, p. 6, Emory; Corporal Phillip Trout, PFC James Johns, Sergeant Donald Johnson, p. 2, PFC Olvis Day, p. 4, PFC Fred Peterson, p. 3, Q-Ast; Captain Melvin Rappaport, letter to Theresa Ast, December 1993.

[ii]. 1st Lieutenant Conrad Smith, pp. 4, 6, Lt. Colonel James Moncrief, p. 6, Sergeant George Adzick, p. 3, Q-Ast; Mills in Strong, Liberation of KZ Dachau; Alexander Breuer, videotape interview, Record Group 50, International Liberator's Conference, October 1981, Washington, DC. (hereafter cited as ILC).

[iii]. Charles Roland (99th Infantry Division), PFC Max Norris (99th Infantry Division), Staff Sergeant Robert Burrous (80th Infantry Division), Staff Sergeant Michael Gracenin (99th Infantry Division), Tech Sergeant Jacob Hayes (99th Infantry Division), Survey, MHI.

[iv]. Howard Lewis (99th Infantry Division), Survey, MHI.

[v]. 2nd Lieutenant Richard Byers (99th Infantry Division), PFC Leroy Sprague (89th Infantry Division), PFC Charles Kissel (89th Infantry Division), PFG David Reagler (99th Infantry Division), Survey, MHI.

[vi]. Tech Sergeant John Sushereba (80th Infantry Division), Staff Sergeant Curtis Whiteway (99th Infantry Division), Survey, MHI.

[vii]. George Pisik, interview with Theresa Ast, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, July 1993; 2nd Lieutenant Ray Millek, Sergeant Bob Brennan, Private Martin Drus, Private Jim McCarthy, (all in the 103rd Infantry Division), in Richard M. Stannard, Infantry: An Oral History of a World War II Infantry Battalion, (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993), pp. 253, 255-256, (hereafter cited as Stannard, Infantry).

[viii]. Colonel Howard Beuchner, Chaplain Leyland Loy, John Lee, Felix Sparks in Strong, Liberation of KZ Dachau; Dr. David Ichelson, manuscript, "I Was There," p. 153; Major Douglas Monsson, Staff Sergeant Monroe Nachman, HMFI; Walter McCloskey, ILC; Sergeant Loren Hollister, p. 2, PFC Olvis Day, p. 2, Captain/Chaplain John MacDonald, p. 2, Captain Edward Gossett, p. 1, Q-Ast; 2nd Lieutenant Charles Brousseau, DMC; 2nd Lieutenant Frank Hamburger, p. 4, Major M. Montesinos, p. 9, Emory; PFC Marion Sinelli (97th INfantry Division), Survey, MHI.

[ix]. 2nd Lieutenant Samuel Gibson, p. 2, Q-Ast.

[x]. Major George King, p. 4, Emory.

[xi]. Colonel Howard Beuchner, Dachau: The Hour of the Avenger, (Metairie, Louisiana: Thunderbird Press, Inc., 1986).

Comments - American GI's, German Soldiers, World War II

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    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      jlongrc - Sounds like you are well organized and on top of things as far as applications go (a very good thing too, because late and sloppy applications go straight into the garbage can). You are smart not to try and cram it all in at the last minute. So Chicago is your goal. Well Emory and others are good fall back schools.

      Acceptance is very unpredictable. Same person, same qualifications might get in one year and not the next because 20 people applied for 10 slots one year and then 30 people applied for the same 10 slots the next year -- and of course they don't usually tell you those things. Good luck and be sure and let us know when you are accepted and make your choice. :) Theresa

    • jlongrc profile image

      Jacob Long 

      5 years ago from Memphis, TN

      Yes, it does seem the Russians were worse perpetrators of this than Americans from what I've seen and heard. My first exposure to this "alternative history," if you want to call it that, was via my study of German film. Once Germans started acknowledging the war and the post-war in their art (which took about 25 years), this was an ever-present side issue in films. As you said, civility does seem to drop though I hope man can at least continue to improve the way it does warfare.

      As far as grad school applications, I'll be applying in the late fall. I'm getting the GRE out of the way, crafting a personal statement, and tweaking a writing sample. I'm in the preliminary stages of narrowing down schools. I'd like to go to school in Chicago, though I probably will not apply to UChicago as it is will probably be a tick too competitive. I will apply at Northwestern, DePaul, and UIC in all likelihood. I'm also checking out York in Toronto and Emory, Wisconsin, and Indiana. This is, of course, subject to change in the coming months :D

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Hey jlongrc - I have occasionally read about that and I am sure it did happen. The very nature of war often means that normal standards or civility and morality are lowered...but I have actually more frequently read about Russian soldiers raping both Polish and German women. I thinnk you are right, any "liberation is complicated and conflicted.

      How are the grad school applications coming along? Have you been accepted? Have you chosen a university?

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Theresa

    • jlongrc profile image

      Jacob Long 

      5 years ago from Memphis, TN

      You may have already addressed this elsewhere, but one of the most frequently heard collective memories on the part of post-war Germans is the Allies' serial rapes of German women. It obviously behooves Germans to point this out as this was one evil they suffered (instead of inflicted), but it just shows how complicated the Allied "liberation" really was.

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Randy - My respect and gratitude to your Father. Most of the WW II veterans I have worked with have a very hard time talking about it -- in fact a lot of them only become willing to talk about it as they see the end of their life on the horizon --- as they are approaching 70, 75. I heard from multiple GIs the same story he shared with you.

      I like that your father pointed out something that is often forgotten in the heat of war. There are good and decent men on both sides, in both armies. And I am sure the camp inmates recognized that as well. Quite a few of them write about in their posy-camp memoirs and books.

      Thank you for your encouraging and kind comments. Theresa

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 

      5 years ago from Southern Georgia

      My father was one of the GIs who helped liberate the holocaust camps in WWII. He didn't like to talk about it much, but he told me some of the prisoners were allowed get to some of the guards who had been especially cruel to them with billy clubs. Of course, some of the guards had also been as good to the prisoners as they were allowed and these were treated decently by both the Americans and the former prisoners. Very good article, Theresa!

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good Morning suzette. He was a soldier worthy of commendation -- it is very difficult to listen to one's conscience in the face of a direct order. And thank you - that is one of the finest compliments I have ever gotten --"mini-classes on the war," The photos do look quaint, so outdated today -- at first I used pictures I had accumulated over the decades of researching this topic, but then I ran out....

      Also my least favorite part of writing a hub is searching for copyright free or public domain pictures. Even thinking about it made me severely grumpy. Then one weekend I was going through boxes of books to separate "keeper" and "Goodwill donations." I was looking at an old Western Civ textbook from ten years ago and noticed the pictures -- lots of maps, political and military figures and wartime photographs!!

      I sat down then and there with a folder (marked Discovering the West, Wilson, 2003) the book and a pair of good scissors. I eviscerated the book and wound up with 35 usable pictures because the book was very "text" heavy.

      I was excited and wound up so I got in the car, went to the nearest Good Will and bought an armful of used books.

      For the last three months any time I am watching TV or talking to friends, I am also ripping and cutting and organizing my folders. Folders with pictures of old maps, new maps, American statues and monument, fruits and vegetables, birds, African animals, Christmas decorations, locomotives, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, gardens, trees and leaves, lakes and oceans, mountains and plains, churches and cities, natural wonders, the world wars of course!. spices - herbs - breads - all kinds of dishes, everything in the ocean, and Greek and Roman ruins. I now have several thousand pictures at hand and I spent about 30 dollars -- so worth it. Finding illustrations is now stress free and a perfectly delightful. :) Sorry for writing a book about it, but I am so pleased with my new system.

      Hope you are having a wonderful weekend. Theresa

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Theresa, excellent work!...I must make some time to come back and catch-up. Those were certainly interesting times in our recent human history, not many eye witnesses left, you must have done an incredible amount of research!...put you feet up and have a great weekend.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Fascinating hub, Theresa. I commend the soldier that refused to listen to his CO's command and kill the German. That takes guts and fortitude to listen to your own conscience when given a command. I admire that soldier very much. I love your WWII hubs - they are so interesting and informative. They are like little mini-classes on the war. I also love the WWII photos you always include. When I look at them that war looks so quaint today when compared to how we fight today. Thanks so much for writing this. It is good to have two sides to every story!

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Kathleen- You are the only Hubber who can say that!! :)

      You actually waded through all 300+ pages...and the 850+ footnotes! I think I am prouder of the footnotes than I am the text itself. :) Hope to have the next chapter up near the end of January...too many irons in the fire. :)

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Audrey- You are welcome, and thank you for stopping by to read and comment. It does not surprise me that your father said little, I think they were just such terrible times for everybody involved. Very tragic.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      How am I only now reading this? I can't wait for the next chapter and I've read your dissertation! How many hubbers can say that!?

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      6 years ago from California

      My father lived in Germany during the second world war although he was not German. It is interesting to read your articles because he never spoke much about that time in his life. Thank you!

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thank you Frank. What thoughtful and interesting comments. I have never been compared to the Learning Channel or a capstone course before....I think I like it!

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      6 years ago from Shelton

      PHD... when I read your docu-history.. it's almost like watching a learning channel.. you make a good historian and couple that with the fact that your hubs reach the readers quickly.. and you broaden ( did I spell that right?) the readers a capstone class.. bravo PHD.... Frank

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Hi - I have been grading papers for three hours and I am feeling rather stupid, and probably not thinking straight. I think what you are saying is that you would like to see an article comparing the conditions in the American run camps and the German run camps.

      If that is indeed what you meant, I am not sure I can oblige you. I never did any research on that, and what with full-time teaching I don't think I could manage to research a brand new topic.

      Maybe one of our younger and eager historians will take it on. It is a worthy topic and deserves to be treated in depth. Crashing now, have classes tomorrow. Thank you for coming by to read.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 

      6 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      Illustrate also, please, what "Time" magazine did so well in their 60th Anniversary of V-E Day as to the POW camps for Germans and the German POW camps for allied soldiers and airmen.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Theresa - very well researched and written. I really enjoyed reading this hub. You have a really good flow to your writing. Well done. Looking forward to others. Thank you for sharing. Voted up and sharing.

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Alastar- You are absolutely correct, orders were often subtle, tongue-in-cheek even, and certainly information flew back and forth unofficially (through the grapevine). Survival for German prisoners was pretty iffy.

      I don't focus on this much in my work, but I have read in several reputable histories that after a certain point, German soldiers were incredibly eager to surrender to the Americans and even the British. The goal of course was to avoid if at all possible surrendering to the French, and God forbid, avoid having to surrender to the Russians.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Hi Theresa. As your research has laid out so well, often subtle orders from officers were given to shoot certain Germans in the liberated concentration camps. And of course a kind of "heard it through the grape-vine" passed between the rank and file to do the same. As it often goes in situations of this type, as far as being a surviving German prisoner in the camps under initial Allied control-and even more so the Russians, it came down to who, what, when, and where didn't it. Or at least it seems that way.

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      It took several years of work in graduate school to learn to do this well (thank you for the positive and so encouraging comments - I know my sort of writing is not everyone's cup of tea) but I was lucky in my choice of parents. :)

      My mother was a middle grades English teacher with a great passion for literature and language (as far back as I can remember, every day we introduced each other to a new vocabulary word and then discussed its Latin, Greek, or Germanic roots before adding it to our personal Lexicon.

      And my father was Polish and emigrated to the US in 1949 in his mid teens. He joined the Air Force so we got to travel and experience various parts of the world, and although his formal education ended in the 12th grade, his lifelong loves were history and geography.

      So truth be told, I pretty much had to become a history professor, one who relies a great deal on literature and film to bring the past to life for students. Your comments are greatly appreciated, especially as you are one of the finer writers on HP.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      6 years ago from Chicago

      I very much enjoy your terrific reportage. You are one fine writer. You keep things interesting and moving along swiftly. Well done!

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Reading backwards is certainly OK, especially when you describe them as fascinating. :) Glad you appreciated the Hub.

      Like you I find it reassuring that most soldiers did resist their quite understandable impulses and honored the rules of the Geneva Convention. I, too, was very concerned about some of the abuses authorized and permitted by the Bush administration.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      I am reading these backwards (III,II,I) but this series is fascinating! I am glad to hear most WWII soldiers and officers abided by the Geneva Convention. That is why I was so alarmed when Pres. Geo.W.Bush allowed torture of pow's/terrorists to be used in Guantanano and other countries where prisoners were held. That is a horrible boundary to cross. I know, war is war - there are no rules - but the one "rule" we have, the Geneva Conventon, should be adhered to whether it works for us or against us in some cases. I don't believe we should lose our humanity over the wars in the middle east.

      Again, a wonderfully written hub! Voted up!

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Many thanks molometer. I appreciate your comments and it is gratifying to hear from someone who loves history like I do. One of my goals when I was working with all this material was to "give voice" to the Gi's, to the veterans.

      I met a number of them, and I had all these letters and pictures and interviews from all the men I wasn't able to meet...and I grew up on Air Force bases and had a strong sense of what it is our service men and women do for the rest of us, the life they lead, the sacrifices they make.

      I wanted my work to reflect them, tell their story, and honor them. In fact, in the introduction to my dissertation I try to express my gratitude for all they did and for their willingness to relive those experiences. I hope that my work will always honor them.

      And thank you for your votes. Theresa

    • molometer profile image


      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Another tour de force excellent article well researched and presented.

      You know I love history.

      Your writing style gives voice to the soldiers that went through hell and back. It gives us all an insight into what can happen to ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

      Well done again voted up useful and interesting.

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thank you, thank you. :) My former professors would be so pleased to hear you say that. We students were all such mediocre writers and terrible researchers when we entered the history graduate program at Emory University. And we thought the professors were all fascist malcontents who hated us...but bit by bit they forced us to become better writers and good researchers. Their very tough lessons have stood me in good stead over the years as I have written numerous academic proposals and conference papers. I am grateful to them now, but it was very hard to be appreciative then. Theresa

    • ROBERTHEWETTSR profile image

      rOBERT hEWETT SR. 

      7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      You unbiased coverage of this aspect of the end of the war is very well presented. It is a delight to read a well

      researched story. Robert

    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      phd is just fine....

      The documentation takes a lot of work - certainly not the most enjoyable part of research and writing. :) Because the World War II soldiers were for the most part the "strong and silent" types who courageously went and did their duty and then came home and really didn't talk about it much, I think the terrible collateral damage suffered by these men often goes unrecognized. PTSD wasn't even a diagnosis during World War II - more about that in a future Hub.

      What great and much appreciated affirmation - that you could "feel the angst" as you were reading....without being melodramatic and wanting to do the men justice,that was my goal...that we could hear them and understand their experience in their own words. Thanks for your encouraging comments.


    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


      7 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      phdast7... (can I call you phd?)

      Awesome documentation and presentation of the collateral damage that occurs in a war zone and the effect on the guys in uniform who have to make those decisions.

      As I was reading your piece I could feel the angst of those aging veterans who might be worried about what had transpired in a forest clearing 40 years earlier.



    • phdast7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Theresa Ast 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      So glad you are hooked. I teach history and interdisciplinary courses at a small liberal arts university and that keeps me pretty busy, but I have been impressed by some of the writers and topics on Hubs, so I thought I'd give it a try. I am going to try and post one hub a week - nice to know someone will be watching for the next installment.

    • Kadmiels profile image


      7 years ago from Florida

      still cannot wait for the third installment i am hooked


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